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The Desegregation Of Birmingham's Golf Courses


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. All this week, I'm in Birmingham, Alabama, where the city is in the midst of commemorating the 50th anniversary of the tumultuous and influential civil rights protests that occurred here. One place that might not come to mind when you think about this period is the golf course.

But that's where we ended up after reading a headline that was on the front page of the Birmingham News 50 years ago today. It says: Golf courses reopen June 29th. Turns out, municipal golf courses were part of the many city parks that officials closed altogether rather than integrate. The courses shut down for more than a year. The city police even put cement in the holes to prevent people from playing. Their reopening was another little sign of the change sweeping the South.

So I went to one of those golf courses named in the article, the Boswell Highland course, and I met up with Ed Sanders, the president of a black golfers group, The Vulcan Club.


ED SANDERS: That's the shot.

CORNISH: And Sanders agreed to give me a golfing lesson.

SANDERS: Take your time. Get your preshot routine. Look at where you're going to put it. Hello. You did all three.

CORNISH: Three in a row.

SANDERS: Let's try it again.

CORNISH: Ed Sanders was just 16 years old the year that this golf course was desegregated, but he was one of hundreds of teenagers who were arrested and jailed during the May demonstrations known as the Children's March, the ones that ended in violence from police. It's safe to say at the time integrating golf wasn't at the front of his mind.

SANDERS: All we wanted do was get the right to go down to Pizitz or Loveman's and eat, OK?

CORNISH: These are the department store lunch counters downtown.

SANDERS: These are the department stores. And all we wanted to do was sit. When we get on the bus, let us seat where we want to seat.

CORNISH: It wasn't until later in life that Ed Sanders came to golf, but there were some blacks out there who were attracted to the links early on, guys like Lee Gurley. Before integration, the only course blacks could play was called Cooper Green. If you wanted to see the others, you'd have to be a caddy to white players.

LEE GURLEY: We played on caddies' day which would be on Mondays, you know, only time we get to play just once a week. We played at Cooper Green Golf Course.

CORNISH: Gurley is now a marshal at this once segregated golf course. One of the first black golfers to play Highland Park the day it integrated was Dr. Jesse Lewis. Lewis was a prominent member of the business community and went on to found The Vulcan Club. I met him at his office where he's now part owner of a golf course, a course that he used to sneak onto to play as a young man.

DR. JESSE LEWIS: They didn't have fences up around the gold course. So we would just go out there in the afternoon at Roebuck and Highland Park and play, and it was great. Golf was a expensive game, so we went and played for free for years.

CORNISH: When they talk about bootleg golfers sneaking onto the course, that one point I read that they actually poured concrete into - they put cement into the holes.

LEWIS: Yeah, they did that. They even put rocks and bricks and all that type of thing.

CORNISH: So June 29th, the city reopens the golf courses, and these are actually some of the first facilities that the city tries to integrate. Take us back to that day.

LEWIS: I went to Highland Park that day, four of us, and we had a white person to call so we make sure that we get to tee time.

CORNISH: You got the less desirable tee times that they knew it was black players.

LEWIS: Right. They know that - they moved the - that's right.

CORNISH: Were you afraid at all?

LEWIS: No. There were a white group behind us, and one of the person in the group was standing in the line of my backswing. If I brought the club back out, I would hit him. So I explained to him very nicely that I possibly can if he keeps standing there, I will knock his teeth out because I have a long backswing. And so he eventually moved back, and we played, and the only thing we've got was a few heckles.

CORNISH: When you look at the city golf courses today and who's playing. How far do you feel like Birmingham has come?

LEWIS: We've come a long ways. Birmingham is a landmark of discrimination. We have come a long ways. The key is what we do in 2014.

CORNISH: Well, Dr. Lewis, thank you so much for talking with us.

LEWIS: Thank you.

CORNISH: That's Dr. Jesse Lewis, part owner of Birmingham's Roebuck Golf Course and co-founder of The Vulcan Golf club.

Oh, the other stories on the front page of the Birmingham News 50 years ago today? There was a historic pact between union steel workers and owners, the hotline between the U.S. and Soviet Union was formally agreed to, and there was an article about a teenage Prince Charles getting caught having a drink at a bar. Gossip about British royalty? Some things never change.

SIEGEL: Our co-host Audie Cornish who is reporting this week from Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Audie Cornish is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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